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John Doyle: Is nostalgia for Friends all about white privilege?

Big news last week. Your friend and mine, the cocky streaming outfit Netflix, announced that all 10 seasons of the old NBC sitcom Friends will be available beginning Jan. 1, 2015, in the U.S. and Canada.

It was news to me that Friends was inaccessible, hard to find on TV. My impression was that it has been all over TV for years.

But, my dears, the news struck like a thunderbolt. Across the Internet, people went giddy, electrified by the news. What to do? Pick a favourite episode and go straight to that? Or start from the very first episode and binge, binge, binge?

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Well, at least we know where a lot of really annoying people will be on New Year's Day. Inside, gawking at the TV/computer and out of harm's way. That's the good news.

The bad news is that there is any kind of big fuss about Friends. I have a theory about the gushing affection for Friends that's happening now. And that theory is linked to the fact that on the day of the Netflix-Friends announcement, there was a pithy and rather raw discussion on The Daily Show.

Jon Stewart had the hectoring Fox News celebrity Bill O'Reilly on as a guest. Ostensibly O'Reilly was promoting a new book, but Stewart asked him to admit that white privilege exists in modern-day America, something O'Reilly has challenged vociferously on-air. They went at it.

Now, back to Friends. The new Friends fever has emerged suddenly but not inexplicably. It's the 20th anniversary of the show's debut, yet there's more to it. It's more than a fad, it's a fetish. This past summer, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow staged a mini reunion on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and the Friends set was lavishly and expensively recreated for the occasion.

Also, right now, a replica of the show's Central Perk coffee shop is up and running in Manhattan, and features appearances from actor James Michael Tyler, who played the barista, Gunther. Visitors can have their photos taken on the famous Friends couch there. Many have, and many have been interviewed on TV or for other media about their Friends crush.

On The Daily Show, O'Reilly conceded, grudgingly, that in his suburban New York home town of Levittown, blacks couldn't live there in the 1950s. So yeah, maybe that had an element of white privilege. Meanwhile, Stewart talked about "a systemized subjugation of black people in America."

Which made me think of Friends. At the height of the sitcom's popularity in 1996, Oprah Winfrey had the cast on her talk show, and said: "I'd like y'all to get a black friend. Maybe I could stop by."

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Afterward, Matthew Perry said: "I liked the way that Oprah Winfrey brought it up. I know that they read everybody for these parts. And I know they weren't looking for 'six white people.' But [Oprah's remark] was definitely heard and hopefully the producers and the writers were listening. We want Oprah to come on the show. That would be so cool."

It didn't happen and it would not have been "cool," because Oprah's distaste for Friends was authentic. By the way, when Winfrey made the remark, Friends ranked third overall in the U.S. Nielsen ratings, yet sat at 111th out of 140 prime-time network shows in black households.

The fact that "white privilege" is being discussed on The Daily Show in October, 2014, tells us the issue is alive and well. The fact that binging on Friends makes some people salivate tells me that something else might be going on – a nagging need to indulge in a world inhabited only by six white twentysomethings who don't seem to encounter people of any other colour or background, and, though young and striving, live extraordinarily privileged lives.

The issues of race and "white privilege" make some Americans deeply uncomfortable. Maybe, at a time when mainstream U.S. TV is finally airing shows with ensemble casts that look like the ensemble that is America, and after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and after the shooting and rioting in Ferguson, Mo., and all the attendant questions raised, there's an instinctive need on the part of some to return to the bubble of white-bread America that is epitomized by Friends.

Pity if it's true, but it might be.

Airing tonight

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Strange Empire (CBC, 9 p.m.) remains strong and a must-see – violent, dark, unpredictable and Western-set, but female-focused. It isn't mass entertainment; it deals with the mess of our history that some historians tidied up.

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